Alternate Title: Operator's Side (Japan)
Platform: PlayStation 2
Review Date: 3/18/04
When the luxurious JSL Space Station Hotel is attacked by bloodthirsty monsters, it's up to you and a mysterious waitress named Rio to find a way to safety. Unfortunately, you're locked in a security monitoring room and can only communicate with Rio through an audio headset. You do, however, have the benefit of being able to monitor and control all of the security cameras on the station, and unlock sealed doors - all except, ironically, your own. So your job is to guide Rio through the station, looking for clues and survivors, avoiding hazards, and ultimately leading her to where you're trapped.
"Lifeline" is a gimmick game, and its gimmick is that it's entirely voice activated via a USB headset. Finally, a game where I can be ignored and misunderstood by women in the safety and comfort of my own living room! This game really proves the old saying, "in space, no one can hear you scream," as communicating with Rio can be extremely frustrating. And this game will make you scream at your TV. Actually, the voice recognition is quite good and very compelling - when it works, that is. Rio supposedly understands over 5000 words and 100,000 phrases, but the real trick is trying to figure out what those 5000 words are. Trying to identify items so that Rio will interact with them is the most infuriating part of the game, because you have to be very specific, even if you don't have a clue what you're looking at. You can't just say "look at the piece of paper with writing on it that's right in front of you." Instead you have to identify the paper as either a document, a brochure, a questionaire, a menu, an invoice, a newspaper, a manifest, a notebook, an invitation, a memo, a map, or a note, when you quite clearly don't - and can't - know what it is until after she looks at it. There's a zoom in feature that sort of helps, but you can't control the camera's position, so you rarely get a good view. The mindset of the developers and the target audience of the game also comes into play with what Rio understands and responds to. She responds to things like "take a shower," "will you sleep with me?" and "bark like a dog," but she fails to recognize what I would consider game-critical things like "are you injured?" and "how do you feel?"
Fortunately, there's more to the game than just the voice control gimmick, as it's also a solid and competent survival horror dating simulation game. The story, while cheezy, clichéd, and marred by logic holes, is engaging throughout and has a definite Japanese flavor. Curiously, the various characters aboard the station are all deranged, making you wonder if they're even worth rescuing. What is this, "Silent Hill?" As you progress through the game, your bond with Rio becomes more personal, and you actually feel like the two of you are working together and getting to know each other at the same time. This level of immersion and interactivity is difficult to find in video games, and the things that "Lifeline" does right are superb. Unfortunately, there's just not enough of them to outweigh some of the game's shortcomings.
Like many survival horror games, the gameplay is divided into exploration and combat. In exploration mode you instruct Rio to search for clues, keys, and supplies ("look in the second locker on the left"), and in combat mode you tell Rio how to engage various monsters that she encounters ("shoot head, dodge left, reload"). Progression through the game is very linear and most of the puzzles are simple and straight forward. However, there are a fair amount of extremely difficult, ambiguous, and unintuitive puzzles that turn into hopeless guessing games because you don't know what to do and what you're doing wrong. It definitely helps to have a walkthrough handy while playing the game, although after reading the instruction manual again, it drops a lot a very subtle hints about identifying various objects in the hotel. "Lifeline" requires a LOT of patience, and while it can be EXCEEDINGLY frustrating at times, the overall difficulty isn't too bad. But those health packs you were hoarding for the final boss fight? Better use 'em up before then, because they won't do you any good there.
Presentation wise, the game looks pretty good. The characters and environments are attractive and full of detail, but the monsters look plain and uninteresting. As you would expect, Rio is very pretty and extremely well animated. Her facial expressions and bright eyes are very emotive and realistic, but unfortunately the camera is usually too far away to notice. Rio is voiced by Kristen Miller of "She Spies", who does a very adequate job, although she often comes across as a pushy and bitchy vapid teenage bimbo. However, this tends to wear off the more you get to know her. The other voice talent isn't so great, and the Majel Barrett knockoff computer voice is downright grating. The game also has a nice and moody soundtrack. The cut scenes are very nicely done, although they point out the major break in the gameplay paradigm, which is that you're supposed to be experiencing everything through the eyes of a security camera, which isn't capable of cinematic angles and edits. I like the aesthetics, though, so it doesn't bother me. Probably the weakest aspect of the game design is the poorly implemented menu screen, which is vague and difficult to comprehend. Another issue is that the button configuration is unorthodox and disregards Sony's interface standards, which leads to a lot of mistakes and false starts. It's most likely that the buttons didn't get remapped during the English localization process, but that just seems like bad form on the developer's part. Overall, I found "Lifeline" to be as infuriating as it was compelling, and over the course of the game I never grew tired of the perverse thrill of trying to converse with a cyberbabe. It's an exciting and rewarding experience if you have enough patience - and a good walkthrough.